Friday, October 19, 2007

Another Cardinal story from Bob Levy

Marie, this is the same adult female cardinal that appeared in your October 13th story “Another Bad Hair Day.” She looks much better. I trust you think you do too!

I came upon Mama Castle foraging with her youngest fledgling in Central Park’s Shakespeare Garden. Mama Castle and I are well acquainted so it was not at all unusual for her to rush toward me when I whistled. She stopped on the top of a rock waiting for the peanut she expected I would provide. When she received it she took it to her previous perch and called out. Her fledgling rushed to her side. Then Mama Castle stretched her neck toward the excited juvenile and placed the food in her beak. But as the photo demonstrates when Mama Castle pulled back I saw that she was still holding the peanut which I had expected the fledgling to have eaten. Mama Castle held onto the food as her fledgling resumed begging.

This was repeated three more times with the same results. Why? I assumed that the piece of food might be too large. Until now Mama Castle had always crushed the peanuts into smithereens for this youngster. Clearly smithereens were not on today’s menu. The fifth time Mama pressed the food into the juvenile’s beak she held on to it for a second only to drop it. Her mother picked it up and put it into her daughter’s beak again. At last the fledgling held it firmly. She took it to the base of a shrub where she ate it under the cover of leaves.

Meanwhile Mama Castle had rushed back toward me. About four feet away she “spoke”. I understood. My reply was to toss another peanut to her but she treated this one differently. Instead of delivering it to the fledgling whole she broke it into pieces that were small but decidedly not smithereens . Then she returned to the rock and called out. Her daughter joined her and performed the process as if she had been doing it this way all her life. She readily crushed and swallowed the smaller chunks of food her Mama passed to her. When it was consumed Mama Castle approached me again and the scene was reprised.

What was going on here?

I believe this was a kind of Northern Cardinal table manners training session. Mama Castle had been teaching her daughter how to to eat without her having to jam food down her throat which, if you seen it, is standard operating procedure with younger fledglings. The lesson appeared to have been learned because I later saw the fledgling successfully retrieve, break up and eat a peanut unassisted, This scenario continued for a few more minutes until the fledgling abruptly raced off. Mama Castle faced me for a few seconds almost as if she were wondering what to do next: go after her daughter or collect more food. But her decision was foregone conclusion. She bolted after her fledgling and that was the end of my training session.